One of the most important lessons Ian Angell gives to his information systems students at the London School of Economics is how to deal with failure. “Remember the two golden rules of systems development,” he says. “One, always leave before the system goes live; and two, always set someone up to take the blame.”
Angell is one of the few futurists who broke with the utopian school of commentary which argued our world would be enriched and democratised by the proliferation of IT.
In 2000, he wrote his own dystopian take on the future, The New Barbarian Manifesto, which earned him the monikers “Angell of Doom” and “Guru of Gloom” from the UK press.
His vision was of a world divided in three, but not in Orwell’s sense of three distinct constantly warring power blocks.
Angell’s vision was of a world where new elites are entrenched, information elites which have high standards of living and monopolise wealth. Societies will collapse, mass culture will decay and self-interest will be the driving principle.
The information elite
Another piece of advice he offers freely, is that people always ask the important question: “What’s in it for me?”
If anything, Angell could be more like the Black Prince of IS, the information age’s very own Machiavelli. His Manifesto is also a guide to help people claim their place among the future information elite.
On his latest jaunt down under, however, Angell is far from gloomy, for he has just received some very good news.
Angell came to Wollongong to help launch the University of Wollongong’s Metacapitalism Research Project, a project out of the accounting and finance department that will study the success or otherwise of efforts to decapitalise organisations through the use of new technology and outsourcing.
In his talk to researchers there and in two subsequent public lectures, he reveals his own deep scepticism about IT’s ability to deliver and the future shape of our world.
Top of mind for Angell is the UK’s identity card project. It is one his school has loudly criticised.
“Can the tools of technology be used to manage identity?” he asks. “Yes, but not very well.”
Angell says large-scale efforts to manage identity are attempting to do one thing: Transform uncertainty into risk.
“We swap hopelessness for the optimism of a plan of action. In other words, we impose structure in order to gain a tenuous handle on uncertainty.
“Most people talk about the opportunities from technology?–?as for me, I’ll stick to the dark side. Whenever I smell flowers I think ‘funeral’. For, as sure as night follows day, whenever computers are mixed with human activity, new uncertainties will emerge from the inevitable complexity.”
That word “complexity” is at the core of Angell’s scepticism about IT. Two decades ago, he warned that unless computerised complexity could be managed, we would be heading for a meltdown. That was before the internet, Microsoft, Google, mobile telephony and Bluetooth.
Government always wins
“Yes, we are plagued by fraud, identity theft, computer viruses, bluejacking, denial of service attacks and so forth and far worse is to come,” he says.
But it is not hackers we need to worry about most, but people who don’t know what they are doing. Politicians. Politicians, who Angell says are all collectivists, no matter what party they belong to. The problem with democratic elections, he says, is that the government always wins.
The good news Angell had received is of leaked email from the UK identity card project’s management appearing in the UK press. At the highest levels within the project, the possibility of failure was being actively considered. A few days later comes word the project is being reviewed.
The reason for Angell’s broad grins while on stage in Australia is because last year a team at the LSE had produced a 300-page report arguing the ID card project was high risk and that costs could balloon out from an estimated US$10.7 billion to US$37.8 billion. The team came under immediate and persistent attack but was backed heavily by university management.
And that’s when Angell, never shy about a public scrap, waded in, lampooning the politicians behind the project mercilessly, jibing that politicians won’t have to have photos on their cards because they don’t know which of their two faces to use.
“The UK Home Office is in a hole,” he says, “and when you are in a hole, stop digging. But politicians will never admit they are wrong.”
He quotes Unisys’ Robert Tavano, whom he describes as one honest man: “A national ID card for the UK is overly ambitious, extremely expensive and will not be a panacea against terrorism or fraud, although it will make a company like mine very happy.”
That said, Angell is quite happy for the project to go ahead. It’s the self-interest principle again: He and his LSE associates will have the chance to study a huge project failure in detail and Angell himself will make a lot of money on the lecture circuit.
Behind Angell’s scepticism is a deep understanding of the philosophy of social science, about the differences between cause and effect, of the impact of singularities, the nature of non-linear systems and more.
“The only property that systems have in common is that they all fail. It’s time to nail the big lie of the 20th century. Stop this obsession with methods and targets, which actually makes everything more complicated. Method is the first, the last, the only resort of the mediocre.”
He describes business life as a “poker game of uncertainty” but one where you can’t even trust the statistical distribution of cards due to emergent singularities that do not conform to neat computational logic.
So what is a singularity? Think about what the IRA spokesman said after the bombing of the Conservative Party Convention in Brighton: “They had to be lucky all the time, we had to be lucky just once.”
Statistics on the other hand will tell you the “average human being has one tit and one testicle”.
Angell says it is important to remember the “map is not the terrain”, manipulating models is not the same as manipulating the world. Observed regularities in society are an effect and these, under fellow LSE academic John Goodhart’s law, will “collapse when put under pressure for control purposes”.
Therefore a good computer platform may be necessary but it is not sufficient for success. This is because it never works in isolation from social, political, organizational factors and will never be immune to singularities.
The tools of technology, he says, may or may not succeed but will certainly produce unexpected results. “When computerised information systems are mixed with human activity systems, they lead to systemic risks, unforeseen consequences, both hazards and opportunities which are the result of feedback in the inevitable complexity of interactions.”
“Complexity,” Angell predicts, “will increase to a point where the utility of computers turns into reliance, reliance becomes dependence and the Law of Diminishing Returns precipitates a galloping descent into nightmare.”
Those are words any CIO will understand. The battle against complexity is constant in organisational IS. Complexity increases cost and increases risk. All over, organisations are consolidating systems or outsourcing to pass the management of complexity on to someone else.
Angell is also taxed, so to speak, about the changing nature of money?–?the subject of his University of Wollongong lecture, in which he is even more provocative than in his public lectures. He says the Japanese government is already experimenting with embedding RFID-type chips into bank notes to make cash fully traceable.
“There will be no more anonymous cash,” he warns.
But the technology could do far more than allow traceability?–?it could allow notes to be cancelled. People owing tax, for instance, could just have their cash cancelled if they don’t pay up. Cash could even have expiry dates set on it so it has to be used within a certain time.
But, as with ID cards, Angell predicts unintended consequences and singularities. Robbers will be able to scan people to see how much cash they are carrying and whether they are worth robbing. Then we will all have to carry RFID blockers.
The desire by today’s “degenerate” governments to get a tight reign on cash is driven by the need to defend taxation. Angell says the global business elite is of one mind?–?to escape taxation. But that is a threat to the nation-state.
So, in turn, the state is enrolling business to act as its secret policemen, actively supporting the state by informing against untaxed businesses.
Angell says we are entering a new 16th century. The “mob” is growing in numbers. Europe will become a new Balkans as the EU cracks beneath its own weight and inertia. “What do you do with people of no value?” he asks. “Will the future be more like the Singapore model, where the peasants pay tax and the elite live off the fat of the land? There is no morality in economics.”
Angell argues the last 50 years of the west are an aberration. The whole of history is about brutality. “Make sure you’re on the side of the winners,” he smiles, “or you’ll be the next Aborigines.”
The author attended Ian Angell’s lectures as a guest of the University of Wollongong and is an associate of the university’s Metacapitalism Research Project.
Ian Angell spoke at the University of Wollongong at the invitation of one of his former students, now a lecturer in the department of accounting and finance and an experimenter in artificial intelligence.
George Mickhail is leading a project to track how and whether the drive to decapitalise organisations using technology and outsourcing, sometimes called MetaCapitalism, is adding to or depleting organisational value.
The term Metacapitalism was coined by two PriceWaterhouse Coopers consultants, Grady Means and David Schneider, in their 2000 book MetaCapitalism: The e-Business Revolution and the Design of 21st Century Companies and Markets.
Theirs was a manifesto for change, arguing that new-model decapitalised companies, such as Cisco, have a competitive advantage over old model capital-intensive companies. They are more agile and put resources where they need to be put?–?in areas such as branding, research and development and marketing.
However, another of MetaCapitalism’s darlings was Enron. In January 2005, George Mickhail and co-author Arsen Ostrovsky revisited the question of whether MetaCapitalism was boosting company value or delivering “corporate anorexia” which could increase business risk.
In their article in The Journal of the American Academy of Business, they found MetaCapitalism’s successes since the dotcom crash to be mixed.
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